Civil War risks might seem to explain the first secessionists’ hesitation. In less than five wartime years, South Carolinians would lose around half a billion dollars in human property (half of the state’s total wealth), plus approximately 60 percent of the state’s landed value, plus some 20,000 white men’s lives (out of 60,000 white males of military age).1 The savaged lowcountry economy would flounder for a century (until those ironic saviors, Yankee vacationers, built seaside resorts and helped turn decaying Charleston into a gleaming shrine of the Lost Cause).
But before they dared secession, South Carolinians seldom wrote about a civil war’s potential hazards. Their sparse comments featured not analysis but ridicule. Cowardly Northerners, went a characteristic jeer, would never fill more than a thimble with southern blood. Materialistic Yanks, went another commonplace sneer, would never shun King Cotton’s profits. Besides, could northern indoorsmen ride a cavalry horse?
This occasional derision, and the more common silence, conveyed some honest conviction that a civil war would be short or nonexistent, some honorable repression of dishonorable fear of Yankees, and some calculation of the odds. If disunion might bring northern soldiers into the South, Union would bring Southern Republicans into the post offices. Besides, before a Southern Confederacy’s military prospects became relevant, a Southern Confederacy had to be formed. By precipitating a revolution that most Southerners considered premature, South Carolinians might isolate themselves against the world, a more shuddering prospect than pitting the South against the North.
– 1 –
In their most isolating imagined disaster, South Carolina precipitators pictured a mob’s lawless assault on a federal fort. Such a coup d’état would forfeit the first secessionists’ best hope for spreading the revolution: antisecessionsts’ belief in a sovereign state’s right to withdraw its consent to be governed, so long as the sovereign followed the state’s rights legal rules. Yet South Carolinians as prominent as State Senator William Izard Bull pledged that if the South Carolina majority retreated from secession, he would seize “arms, to maintain our honor against” our own “absolute traitors.”2
Many South Carolina secessionists of 1860 had been college boys during nullification travails. South Carolina had never been the same, the younger generation winced, since their fathers flinched. But could Nullifiers’ sons reverse the flinch by permitting a mob’s illegal coup d’état or by pitching tiny South Carolina, legally but haplessly, all alone onto that precarious limb once again?
The question hung like a soaking blanket atop South Carolinians’ desperation for disunion. The Reverend James H. Thornwell illustrated the smothering effect. To tear down one government, the reactionary had written back in March 1850, and to “attempt to construct” a new guarantor of social order, “in this age of tumults, agitations, and excitement, when socialism, communism, and a rabid mobocracy seem everywhere to be in the ascendant, will lead to the most dangerous experiments, the most disastrous schemes.” Amidst “the upheaving of society from its very foundations,” what would happen to “schemes of the different churches for the conversion of the world”?
A decade later, while in Europe, Thornwell heard that Separate State Secession gambles again tempted South Carolinians. With revolutionary chaos central in his every imagined scenario, the preacher despaired that his flock’s disunion temptation must be an angry God’s imposition on sinning Christians, wreaking havoc for His people’s defiance of His demand to make slavery truly Christian. So Thornwell “made up his mind to move, immediately upon his return [to South Carolina], for the gradual emancipation of the negro, as the only measure that would bring peace to the country.”3
Even if Thornwell meant, as he probably did, that only masters’ absolute power to split slave families and to bar Christ from the quarters should be abolished, his timing would have wrecked his plea. With disunion turmoil abounding, gentlemen would hardly convulsively experiment with their main social institution. Upon returning to South Carolina, Thornwell wisely repressed his untimely scheme. But the evangelical distress behind his smothered proposal illustrated his state’s wary apprehensions.
– 2 –
The question was whether Separatism or Cooperationism portended worse upheaval. Cooperationists claimed that a Southwide decision in a southern convention would avoid the peril of a minority of a minority’s revolution. If a southern convention brought off disunion, a southern majority would defy the Yankees.
Separatists, however, did not trust a southern convention’s majority to go for disunion. The sectionwide majority, immediately after Lincoln’s election, overwhelmingly wished to WAIT. From that majority’s preference, in an inevitably unpredictable meeting, many bad decisions for secessionists could flow, including worsening upheavals in a refortified Union.
In contrast, Separatism offered a supreme secessionist advantage. One state’s majority could control its decision for revolution. From that majority’s preference, many good things for disunion could come, including others southern states’ decision that they had better back their erring brother. Yet if southern unionists elsewhere could not abide the initial secessionists’ error, the lonely state could experience the worst upheavals.
South Carolina’s bad choice between the dangers of Cooperationism and of Separatism lent weight to the advice of the state’s three most prominent leaders in Washington. Of the trio, only James L. Orr publicly announced his preferences before Lincoln’s election. For the congressman as for many other Southerners, the National Democracy’s demise had removed the South’s best alternative to secession. Meanwhile, Lincoln had “declared war upon our social institutions.” If elected, the Republican’s threat to our “honor and safety,” Orr declared in July, “will require prompt secession.”
Yet Orr also declared that secession must be delayed until Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi agreed to cooperate. In mid-October, Orr publicly added that before calling a state convention, the state legislature must appoint commissioners to other states, to ensure “concert of action.” The Charleston Mercury retorted that “Mr. Orr may be a capital disunionist, under impracticable conditions.” But after his “commissioners have run all around the Southern States,” his “recommendation” will yield “postponement, delay, enervation, feebleness, halting, fainting, paralysis, submission—and the downfall of slavery.”4
The second member of the state’s most prominent congressional trio, U.S. Senator James Chesnut, Jr., also appeared to favor delay and cooperation with other states. In the summer of 1860, Chesnut vacationed in the western Virginia mountains at White Sulphur Springs, site of James Buchanan’s summer White House. The many southern state’s righters who swirled around their favorite Yankee had the “cool impudence,” Chesnut privately reported, to suggest that South Carolina should risk everything before they risked anything. Their states would not secede first. But they urged South Carolina “to lead off,” and to take her “chances of dragging others.” Chesnut answered that their strategy “was not very satisfactory to me.” Chesnut also privately told Edmund Ruffin that sufficient Cotton South states must previously agree to join South Carolina to make Separatism viable.5
In November 1860, Separatists worried more about what their more prestigious, more unsteady U.S. senator, James H. Hammond, might publicly say. Orr, shrewd pragmatist, would likely bend toward the strongest state wind. Chesnut, well-born son of an establishment upcountry family, likely lacked the originality or the erratic temperament to defy his inherited class. In contrast, the lowly born Hammond dripped originality, especially of the erratic variety. This arguably most brilliant, possibly most neurotic, and assuredly most appalling of mid-nineteenth-century American tycoons had long since earned Separatists’ closest attention.
In nullification times, this misfit, son of a half-Yankee and sometimes impoverished meat butcher, had soared into the South Carolina upper class on the wings of a brilliant record at South Carolina College and a forceful courting of a Charleston teenage heiress. With Hammond’s shy bride came a huge upcountry plantation, almost 150 slaves, and a purse to match his social betters. The risen son of a mudsill then leapt past smug old wealth. In 1835, as a twenty-eight-year-old freshman congressman, Hammond became a national political star overnight when he initiated the gag rule fight.6 Subsequently, he sustained his reputation with proslavery polemics, including his famous mudsill terminology.
During his upward flight, the new titan looked like an unstoppable achiever. Hammond’s long, narrow head culminated in an extended brow, framed to look even more endless by the thinning hair. The characteristic made him look to be right in affecting to have more brain than his peers. As his face slanted from his unusually extended forehead to his unusually narrow chin, his unusually wide mouth seemed frozen in a sneer. The characteristic made him seem cockier than the white aristocrats he sometimes condescended to charm.
But inside the head fit for a condescending superior, Hammond suffered the neuroses of a squirming inferior. He had had, he privately confessed, “infinite difficulties to overcome, in taking a position to which I had not been bred.” He felt himself “no match for the keen worldly-wise boys.” No one could “conceive” of the “trial and struggle” involved in rising among gentlemen “who looked down on me.”7 Worried that he would fall, Hammond’s psyche gave him honorable ways to quit before his admirers discovered his failings. His psychosomatic stomach agony led to his resignation months before Congress voted against his gag rule motion.
After a sojourn in Europe, Hammond returned to his upcountry estate. There he impatiently waited to be called to his second chance at political fame. He would do nothing to encourage the call. As a disdainer of mobocratic politics and an admirer of South Carolina’s aristocratic regime, this nouveau aristocrat looked up to the state’s legislators as the purest judges of political virtue. If they elected him governor or U.S. senator, he would happily serve. If the jury of his peers chose someone else, he would remain unhappily isolated on his plantation.
Seven years after Hammond’s stomach (and nerves) drove him out of Congress, his peers called him forth, to rule from the governor’s mansion. Subsequently, right there in the mansion, his four nieces, daughters of Wade Hampton II and aged fourteen to nineteen, came “rushing on every occasion into my arms and covering me with kisses—lolling in my lap—pressing their bodies almost into mine, … and permitting my hand to stray unchecked over every part of them and to rest without the slightest shrinking from it, on the most secret and sacred regions—and all this for a period of more than two years continuously.”8
Social revenge possibly sweetened the licentious delights. Wade Hampton II, along with many members of Hammond’s wife’s family, snubbed the fortune hunter ever after he laid siege to his blushing heiress. At any rate, Hammond congratulated himself that he stopped “short of direct sexual intercourse” with Hampton’s nonblushing daughters. The governor also bragged that after one of his nieces for the first time objected to an intimacy, he forever turned away from their “loose manners” and “ardent temperaments.”
Hammond’s own loose manners had cost him dear. One or more of his nieces reported some or all of the escapade to their father. Wade Hampton II punished the governor not by slaying him on the dueling grounds but by savaging his reputation in the legislature. Hampton intimated that Hammond had committed some monstrous (undescribed) indiscretion that required rich men to oust this ex-poor-boy forever from polite society.
For the next twelve years, the shamed ex-governor steamed on his plantation. For years, he suffered alone, except for his two slave mistresses. (His wife departed for half a decade, unable to abide his turning her plantation into his brothel.) Once again, he continually prayed that the legislature, that trusted jury of his peers, would forgive him his sins by calling him forth to serve. If the legislators continued to judge him a monster, he would accept their verdict (indeed judge them right). The self-condemned monster would then drag himself through his living death, until the grave thankfully beckoned.
Then in December 1857, the jury returned Hammond to fullest life. Although he sent a letter refusing to be a candidate, the South Carolina legislature elevated the ex-congressman who had quit and the ex-governor who had misbehaved to John C. Calhoun’s old seat in the U.S. Senate.9Hammond came back from the politically dead partly because of his letter of refusal. A superb way to run for office, in antimobocratic South Carolina, was to run away from running. Hammond also profited from Wade Hampton II’s occasional dashes off to garner southwestern profits. This state did not relish sons who deserted Mother South Carolina for Mammon. Nor did South Carolinians now fully approve of established aristocrats who drummed excommoners into exile without specifying the monster’s sins. In the 1850s, James L. Orr instilled some qualms about such antique presumption. But above all else, legislators saluted Hammond as the most brilliant and independent South Carolinian of his time, needed to provide guidance at this most dangerous moment in all their lives.
Hammond’s Barnwell Court House speech of October 29, 1858, consolidated his reputation for independent brilliance. The senator thereby gave Separate State Secessionists the sort of shudders that James Chesnut, Jr., never inspired. Before the stunning speech, rumors had circulated that Hammond, upon returning from his first senatorial term, had told his constituents that extremists’ panaceas, whether disunion or importing Africans or seizing Mexico, were all like “a railroad to the moon (& everybody knows it).”10
Some ultras, not knowing it, demanded fuller explanations. The supersensitive senator, always unable to bear his peers’ disapproval, meant to regain awed approval at Barnwell Court House. Trading on his once fabulous reputation, he reminded his auditors that he had last spoken to them twenty years ago. Back in nullification times, we together battled “for the Constitution and our rights, in the Union, if possible—out of it, if need be. And this is our battle now.”11
He no longer looked like the brash young battler of nullification times. Hammond seemed older, grayer, balder, fatter, more dissolute, more like the chauvinist who had pawed four nieces and slept with two slaves, mother and daughter, and knew that his son shared the bounty. His face, no longer just pale, had become ivory white. His nerves remained the worst in the state. Only halfway through his speech, Hammond became so overwhelmed “with my scalp on fire and every nerve a quiver” that he had to quit the rostrum—just as he had had to vanish to Europe halfway through his gag rule fight.12
The whole intended Barnwell Court House speech, when printed, showed that Hammond had become as different as he looked from his younger shade, that South Carolina ultra in nullification times. “For many years of my life,” Hammond reminded his old admirers, “I believed that our only safety” lay in disunion. But now I say “not yet.” We will be chasing another moonbeam if we attempt revolution when “the great body of the southern people do not seek disunion.”
The senator warned that we have lately suffered too much from such folly. The “false and useless” Kansas issue tangled us in “disgusting … turmoil over the last four years.” We finally could not even secure “a worthless slavery clause,” which the flood of free labor immigrants “would have… annulled as soon as Kansas was admitted.”
We should have known that we lacked the slaves to win that territory. We should now know that we lack the slaves to win other slaveless territories and that the “vast majority” of Southerners do not want the necessary “vast hordes of slaves” to be imported from Africa. If we acquire Cuba, that one new state will drain off “all the slaves” in “Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland.” If we seize “Mexico and South America,” we will “be contaminated” by “seven or eight millions of hardly semi-civilized Indians and two or three millions of Creole Spaniards and mongrels.”
Let us replace such “bootless efforts,” Hammond urged, with the realization that “the tide of abolition has begun to ebb everywhere and will never rise again.” Let us remember that Yankees’ “sense of danger in a civil war” and their love of profits from marketing “cotton and tobacco” will “in every crisis over-ride their love of negroes.” Let us recall that “our history proves that no man and no measure has yet been strong enough to stand against the South when united. … Let us give to the winds every thought of fear, every feeling of despondency.” Let us rejoice “that we can fully sustain ourselves in the Union and control its action in all great affairs.”13
Two years after this famous outburst, 1860 Separate State Secessionists feared that if Hammond publicly reiterated his newfound unionism, and if Chesnut publicly spread his private distaste for doing non–South Carolina gentlemen’s secessionist dirty work, and if Orr reiterated that South Carolina should not secede unless Georgia would too, South Carolina might again shamefully retreat. Then the southern cowardly majority would again rule. If so, Lincoln might be imminently deciding which Southern Republican would control South Carolina’s mails.
– 3 –
That perceived potential disaster made South Carolina’s Separate State Secessionists desperate. Just as they must not permit Southern Republicans to debate slavery inside South Carolina (or inside Border South states), so they must not permit James H. Hammond to rally a South Carolina majority against Separate State Secession. Nor could other majorities in Lower South states be permitted to call a southern convention. Nor could Upper South majorities in that convention be permitted to set the South’s agenda. Deliberately, demonstrably, with no apologies, South Carolina Separatists sought to preclude Southwide or South Carolina popular majorities from defeating or delaying a wiser minority.
Their manipulations against majority decisions, gentlemen felt, required no defense. According to their aristocratic republican gospel, the hoi polloi should never settle public questions, especially not after the bread and circuses of public campaigns. The people should instead pick the wisest patriarchs, and the paternalists should set public policy, in a legislature or in a convention beyond the herd’s comprehension. “The true relationship between the constituent and his representative,” exclaimed a prominent lowcountryman during the December election of secession delegates, “is not ‘I select you because you will do my will, but because you will do your own, which I believe to be more enlightened than mine.’” The contrary proposition, that elected convention delegates must follow the electorate’s desires, displayed “the concentrated essence of mobbism.”14
At the peak of the secessionist drama, Alfred Aldrich, one of the Separatists’ most important state legislators, called secession the distilled essence of upper-class statesmanship. “I do not believe the common people understand it, in fact, I know they do not understand it; but whoever waited for the common people when a great move was to be made? We must make the move & force them to follow. This is the way,” emphasized Aldrich, “of all revolutions & all great achievements.” Those who wait “until the mind of everybody is made up will wait forever & never do anything.”15
South Carolina’s recent history proved, from Alfred Aldrich’s perspective, that the citizens would never do enough. Three times in three decades, the leaders had asked the voters to defy the Yankees. Twice, in 1830 and in 1851, citizens had voted down nullification or secession conventions. Only once, in 1832, had extremism triumphed at the polls. “I do not want to see another attempt to vote a revolution,” Aldrich exclaimed. “The thing is absurd & can’t be done.” If the “question” of whether South Carolina should secede “must be referred back” to its citizens for decision, “it will be an utter failure.” If the secession decision had to be referred back to all the South’s citizens, in a southern convention, an even more massive failure would ensue. South Carolinians must alone “dare,” added U.S. Congressman William R. Boyce, thereby forcing others to act “with us or our enemies. They cannot take sides with our enemies. They must take sides with us.”16
As the Robert Barnwell Rhetts, junior and senior, explained how they thought dictation must proceed, “Men having both nerve and self-sacrificing patriotism must lead the movement and shape its course, controlling and compelling their inferior contemporaries.” Nor need we rally all southern inferiors for secession; that effort would be “as absurd as it is unnecessary.” Instead, “all our efforts must be addressed to the cotton states.” The noncotton states “can only be managed by the course pursued” at the Democratic National Convention. First wrench the Lower South out, then force the Upper South “to choose between the North and South.” Subsequently, folks with fewer slaves “will redeem themselves & not before.”
At the Democratic National Party Convention, the Rhetts had hoped Yancey would begin not with the whole Cotton South but with “Alabama and Mississippi, … the only states, besides ours,” affording “grounds to expect action.” But in November 1860, they thought a secessionist could concentrate solely on South Carolina, paying no attention whatsoever to other states. Even if Alabama and Mississippi refuse “to agree beforehand to go out of the Union with us,” we should “secede first” and “expect the others to follow.” Who could “conceive it possible that the other Slaveholding States, when once the Union is broken,” would fail to “rally together to save their institutions, from Abolition rule at Washington”?17
Unfortunately for the Rhetts, many fellow secessionists conceived that other southern states would defy so dictatorial a tactic. They preferred Yancey’s more accommodating strategy inside the Democratic National Conventions of 1860. They believed that the leader could not arbitrarily leave, too arrogant even to consult those who must follow. Rhett continued to sneer at that tactic. His scornful arrogance, James Hammond reported, made him seem “utterly odious” outside South Carolina.18
But inside the state, scorn for lesser mortals was gentlemen’s signature. Haughty South Carolina patriarchs chafed at Rhett not because of his swagger but because of his recklessness. As Henry Ravenel summed up the common opinion, Rhett is “the most untrustworthy politician in the state. … He wants judgment, and can never be relied on for statesmanship.”19
The master principle of Rhett’s statecraft sustained that verdict. This fire-eater always thought that if South Carolina would just do it, even in unpopular or lawless ways, other states would be dragged along. Back in nullification times, he almost alone had counseled that instead of retreating from state veto, the defeated Nullifiers should advance to state secession. In 1851, Rhett had secretly advised the South Carolina governor to seize Fort Moultrie from the federals, so that a military confrontation would drive South Carolinians and other cowards out of the Union.20Through all these extreme Separatist proposals, Rhett insisted that he was the true Cooperationist. If I thought we would end up alone, he wrote, I would never advise Separate State Secession. But I am convinced that other states must cooperate after we secede, however we secede, whether they like it or not.
To the many nervous South Carolinians who did not trust such contempt for legal state’s rights procedures and other Southerners’ opinions, Rhett even looked heedless.21 His distinguishing characteristic was neither his lanky sixfoot frame nor his cool blue eyes nor the perpetual little bandage on his nose. No one, including Rhett, yet knew that the trifling gauze, covering up the apparently trifling pimple, actually hid the precursor of a monster cancer. Someday, the poisonous growth would cause surgeons to slice a progressively more grotesque hole in the ultra’s face. Earlier, however, folks most noticed not a carefully bandaged pimple but the wild fringe of graying hair streaming sideward from Rhett’s otherwise balding head. The unkempt canopy over his ears seemed to proclaim that uncontrolled frenzy was a South Carolina statesman’s highest virtue.
That unruly secessionism made “nothing coming from” Rhett, William Porcher Miles claimed in the fall of 1860, carry “any good” for Separatism.22 Nor did any other established South Carolina political titan seem a trustworthy guide toward a safe revolution. Miles had erratically contemplated kidnapping John Sherman during the late congressional session. Keitt, always akin to a bucking bronco, had gone wilder since his brother’s murder. Memminger had secured no Virginia cooperation after John Brown’s raid. To trump a feared Chesnut-Orr-Hammond push toward Cooperative State Secession, or perhaps toward no secession at all, Separatists needed new leaders or at least new tactics, offering not perilous rashness but safe plotting.
– 4 –
In early October, Governor William Gist commenced a secret correspondence, seeking a safe Separatist design. His clandestine communications, together with two simultaneous covert exchanges initiated by other Separatist plotters, briefly fit the dictionary definition of conspiracy: “secret plans … by a group intent on overthrowing a government.”23
During the previous quarter century of southern nonconspiratorial control, extremists deployed only three brief secret plots, all with no consequence or counterproductive impact. In late 1835–36, South Carolina’s Congressman James Hammond precipitated the gag rule crisis before he received secessionists’ undeniably conspiratorial letters, urging him to break up the Union.24 A quarter century later, during the Hinton R. Helper Speakership Controversy, South Carolina’s Congressman William Porcher Miles and Governor William Gist equally undeniably (and abortively) secretly plotted that the governor would rush a state regiment to Washington if South Carolina congressmen bodily threw an elected Republican Speaker out of the House of Representatives.
The only other pre-1860 disunion conspiracy only delayed disunion. In 1850–51, South Carolina’s Governor Whitemarsh Seabrook secretly wrote other Lower South governors, seeking an effective disunion scheme. Mississippi’s John Quitman secretly responded that he should lead his state out of the Union first. Then South Carolinians should back his initiative. Seabrook bought the Mississippian’s plot. But subsequently, Quitman could not deliver his state. Then South Carolinians could not restart their stalled secessionist engines.25
With only these meager evidences of conspiracy to cite, posterity has been right to scoff at Northerners’ belief that a Great Slave Power Conspiracy dominated slavery politics throughout the road to disunion. In presecession times, the southern minority exerted sway over the national majority through normal, nonconspiratorial, pressure group politics, including and especially using its leverage over the National Democratic Party. Since slavery’s defenders long dominated the dominant national party on slavery matters, they needed no conspiracies to prevail.
But in secession times, the National Democratic Party had vanished. (The importance of that disappearance cannot be overemphasized.) Moreover, a southern majority for the expediency of disunion could not be found. (The importance of that absence cannot be overemphasized either). In this new and, to a proslavery extremist, scary revolutionary situation, a brief conspiracy became comforting, indeed indispensable.
The new need in a new era resembled the new relevance of state’s rights ideology. Before the secession crisis, mundane state’s rights in nonrevolutionary times had been more a northern than a southern need, to transport slave runaways through free labor states. But during revolutionary times, the state’s alleged higher right to exercise the American right of revolution became extremist Southerners’ necessity, to pressure reluctant Confederates toward joining one state’s rebellion.
Revolutionary politics do march to a different drummer. When a scheme may provoke indictment for treason, schemers crave secret understandings before risking the gallows, making clandestine communications newly seductive. To scoff at state’s rights and/or conspiratorial influence on the secession crisis, although presecession crises deserve such scoffing, is to forfeit rich understandings. The losses include an insight into South Carolinians’ almost losing struggle to master their misgivings, a comprehension of one way Separatists straightened out initially confused (and potentially paralyzing) Lower South secession tactics, and, ironically, a fuller appreciation of why Great Slave Power Conspiracies failed to control even the revolutionary climax of this history.
– 5 –
The fleeting conspiracy of 1860 initially mirrored the passing plot of 1850, with the South Carolina chief executive again inaugurating the clandestine correspondence. When both Governor Whitemarsh Seabrook in 1850 and Governor William Gist in 1860 commenced their almost identical secret letters to other states’ governors, they believed that Nullifiers had erred in 1832 by not conspiring with other states. By failing to seek and secure prior promises that South Carolina would not stand alone, the Nullifiers had blindly rushed toward that sorry fate.
Governor Gist meant to avoid not only the blunder of 1832 but also the debacle of 1850–52. Governor Seabrook’s plotting with Mississippi’s Governor John Quitman had defused South Carolinians’ charge. This time, no delay could be tolerated. No foe of disunion could be given time to persuade the whole South to wait for an overt act, or to arrange a southern convention, or to allow South Carolina’s disunionist steam to evaporate. Yet if South Carolina instantly decided for Separate State Secession, could the decision makers trust some other Lower South state(s) to follow?
In pursuit of an answer that could soothe worried compatriots, Gist sent identical October 5, 1860, letters to the governors of North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.26 The geographically selective recipients included all but one Lower South governor (Sam Houston, the notorious Texas unionist, being the glaring omission) and only one Upper South governor (the governor of neighboring North Carolina being the lonely exception). In his private letter, Gist sought a “full and free [and secret] interchange of opinion between especially” the “Cotton States.” He wished to hear when other Lower South states’ conventions would meet and what “remedy” they would propose. “Confidential” prearrangements on these matters might yield “concert of action, which is so essential to success.”
We desire, wrote Gist, “that some other State should take the lead, or at least move simultaneously. … If a single State secedes,” we “will follow. … If no other State takes the lead, South Carolina will secede (in my opinion) alone,” but only “if she has any assurance that she will be soon followed by another or other States; otherwise it is doubtful.”
Gist should have known that he would receive back scant assurances to relieve the doubtful, after the unsettling response to Christopher Memminger’s recent fiasco. In the aftermath of John Brown’s raid, it will be recalled, Memminger and the South Carolina legislature had urged southern states to assemble in a southern convention. The Mississippi legislature had set the date and place for the conclave. Mississippi lawmakers had also dispatched a commissioner, Peter Starke, to join Memminger in Richmond, charged with helping to secure Virginia’s attendance at the southern convention. But when Virginia had refused to attend a southern convention that anyway never met, Memminger had thrown up his hands at the southern convention remedy. Starke, in contrast, had still favored the southern convention tactic, as had Alabama’s Governor Andrew Moore in an April letter to Gist.
The October answers to Gist repeated that unwelcome preference for a southern convention. With the exception of the North Carolina governor’s letter (dated October 18) and the Florida chief executive’s missive (dated November 9), the governors answered Gist during the last week of October. The letters thus illuminated Lower South chief executives’ preferred tactics right before South Carolina’s decision altered the tactical landscape.
In only one sense did the governors send Gist his desired Separatist invitation for South Carolina Separatists to plunge alone. If South Carolina alone seceded and Lincoln declared war on the state, Gist’s correspondents all pledged that their states would “immediately rally to her rescue.” This pledge was auspicious. If war ensued, the state’s rights ideology would be a precipitous state’s life raft.
But federal coercion might not follow one state’s secession. If no other state joined South Carolina outside of the Union, a shrewd president might repeat Andrew Jackson’s nullification era strategy. Like Jackson, Lincoln might temporarily forbear to enforce any federal laws, except to collect custom duties far offshore. South Carolina, lacking a navy, could not then pick a fight. The blockaded state would be back in its 1832 predicament.
In hopes of avoiding that forbidding repetition, Gist’s October 5 missive invited some other state to secede first. All the governors rejected the offer (the very offer that John Quitman had gummed up secession by accepting in 1850). Even the most secessionist governor beyond Gist in 1860, John Pettus, leading the most secessionist state beyond South Carolina, Mississippi, doubted that his state would “move alone.” Nor did Alabama’s Governor Moore believe that William Lowndes Yancey’s state, although first to secede from the National Democratic Party Convention, would “secede alone.”
If South Carolina seceded alone and no war ensued, only Florida’s governor, an ex–South Carolinian, pledged that his state would follow. Gist received Governor Madison S. Perry’s comforting promise too late, after South Carolina’s legislature decided to dare. Governor John Pettus’s response, although received in time, offered incomplete assurance. If any “State moves,” declared Pettus, “I think Mississippi will go with her.” To that inconclusive “think” from Mississippi, the Alabama governor added his “opinion” that, if “two or more States will cooperate with” his state, “she will secede with them.”
Between one governor’s mere thoughts, and another’s opinion that two states’ pledges of cooperation must precede his state’s departure (and Florida’s tardy reply), the Lower South chief executives offered Gist no timely guarantee to support one state’s departure, unless federal coercion ensued. Worse, Pettus reported that Mississippians would prefer “a council of the Southern States.” The governors of Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana reported the same dominant sentiment in their states. All these chief executives implicitly concurred with Georgia’s Governor Joseph Brown that their states would appreciate a southern convention’s “common action,” taken “for the protection of all.”
The first wave of 1860 secret letters had yielded no comforting plot for Separate State Secession. Instead, the majority of Lower South governors looked toward Cooperationism in a southern convention, where the Upper South white majority might dominate. These answers to Gist’s inquiry brought the secession crisis to its most important tactical turning point. Gist and his state could join, and thereby make irresistible, the Lower South governors’ momentum toward a southern convention. Or the South Carolinians could throw Separate State Secession into the teeth of the Lower South’s tactical preference (a gamble that Gist had conceded his state might lack the nerve to try).
The very short time for Lower South strategists to think about their response to Lincoln’s election made this turning point especially critical. Just here, the uncertainty until deep in the fall about whether Lincoln would win an Electoral College majority became important. If the Republican victory had been certain for months and every Lower South state had had ample time to make its decision before another state moved, a South Carolina lightning-quick strike could not have revolutionized the very context of decision, before decisions had been made.
But with the election long uncertain, emergency thinking and planning did not begin in earnest until late September/early October, even in South Carolina. The first thoughts about the new situation commenced with the last thoughts about the previous emergency: John Brown’s raid and Christopher Memminger’s failure. Gist’s October 5 letter reflected Memminger’s judgment that the southern convention strategy had proved forever disastrous. The Lower South governors’ responses to Gist’s letter, however, reflected Peter Starke’s opinion that the tactic deserved another try. If Gist and his state succumbed to that southwestern drift, the Cooperationist preference could swell. But if the South Carolinians instantly, unanimously gave Lower South tacticians only time to respond to an accomplished revolution, a revolutionary history would be on top of other Lower South states before they could wander toward an alternative.
Gist lost scarcely an hour in choosing the Separatist rather than the Cooperationist fork in the road. In a second phase of his own brief conspiracy, the governor secretly asked his cousin to deter the Mississippi governor from a southern convention. As we will see, this clandestine follow-up effort had its impact, but only after the South Carolina legislature made its decision. To lend faltering South Carolina legislators the nerve to press an instant revolution on the Lower South, two earlier waves of South Carolinians’ conspiratorial correspondence had more timely consequence.
– 6 –
In late October, three weeks after Gist wrote the Cotton South governors, Robert Barnwell Rhett, Jr., sent Mississippi’s U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis and some other Cotton South leaders additional secret inquiries, asking whether an immediate interstate secession could be planned, based on Separatist State Secession. Jefferson Davis, writing what Rhett called “the most discouraging letter received,” considered it “doubtful” that Mississippi’s legislature would call a state convention. If a Mississippi convention did assemble, secession “would probably fail,” unless “neighboring States” adopted the remedy. If South Carolina “alone” seceded, continued Davis, his state’s position “would not probably be changed.” Especially Georgia might be lost if only South Carolina seceded. Then Separatist State Secessionists would lose Mississippi too.
My state, explained the senator, suffers from “the want of a port.” If our neighboring states clung to the Union, we would be commercially isolated after secession. Moreover, if Mississippi and South Carolina alone seceded, our two states would be “geographically unconnected.” You need Georgia “to connect you with Alabama and thus to make effectual the cooperation of Missi. … If Georgia would be lost by immediate action, but could be gained by delay,” Davis climaxed, “it seems clear to me that you should wait.” Or as South Carolinians read this (they thought) dismal advice, the most secessionist state should wait for the least secessionist Lower South state to decide.
If South Carolina seceded first, Davis conceded, and if the federal government should “attempt to coerce” Lower South brothers “back into the Union, that act of usurpation folly, and wickedness would enlist every true Southern man for her defense.” But instead, Davis predicted, “federal ships would be sent to collect the duties on imports outside” Charleston harbor. “The Southern States would have little power to counteract” that maneuver. For all these reasons, Davis favored “seeking to bring these states into cooperation before asking for a popular decision.”27
Davis’s letter to Rhett Jr., like the Lower South governors’ letters to William Gist, demonstrates that just before and immediately after Lincoln’s election, the Cotton South instinctively responded to Republican triumph not with one option but with two. Posterity, knowing what happened, thinks that Separate State Secession must have been the master idea. But before South Carolina’s legislature struck, many southwestern leaders still considered a southern convention the better alternative. The governors of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia themselves prayed for disunion. Each was the reigning expert on his state’s likely course. They were biased toward predicting a Separate State Secession destiny. They could make no such prediction unless South Carolina acted. Even then, their predictions wobbled unless war ensued. So did South Carolinians still dare the Separatist tactic, in the face of a conspiracy gone slightly awry?
– 7 –
In response, a tiny group of Christopher Memminger’s Charleston compatriots, after suffering with their fellow Cooperationist over his failed Virginia venture, now saw no choice except a reformed Separatist effort, including one more effort at interstate conspiratorial planning. These nervous squires considered a continued Union or a revived southern convention equally suicidal for slavery. Instead, cautious revolutionaries must rally enough support outside South Carolina to make Separatism safe. They then must steer reassured aristocrats down the state’s rights’ legal path toward a second American Revolution.
The lifelong nonagitators who deployed this sober agitation remained so discreet that they still are invisible in almost all accounts of how these Founding Fathers brought their nervous state to Armageddon.28 Most history buffs recall Robert Barnwell Rhett. But who remembers Robert Gourdin, or John Townsend, or William Dennison Porter, or Isaac Holmes, or Andrew Magrath, or William Tennent, Jr.?!
All these fresh leaders of the climactic secession movement deserve to come out from history’s shadows, for they, not Rhett, became the final guides of South Carolina’s presecession world. Their guidance illuminates the steady tone that an uneasy establishment craved, before attempting a perilous gamble. These wealthy and sophisticated possessors of the finest Charleston drawing rooms also illustrate a broader truth about American politics: Farout extremists cannot usually win popular elections, even in revolutionary situations. Just as the more moderate Abraham Lincolns had to replace the more extreme William Lloyd Garrisons for antislavery men to sweep northern elections, so the more soothing John Townsends had to replace the more frightening Robert Barnwell Rhetts for secessionists to command Lower South voters, even in Charleston, even after Lincoln’s election.
Townsend, the greatest pamphleteer of the obscure grandees who seized the revolution, exemplified the safe and sane type. Townsend had put his brilliant polemical skills to work against nullification in 1832 and against secession in 1851–52. The ex-Cooperationist still shared, he privately whispered to his congressman, his fellows’ “undefined dread of terrible consequences which must certainly follow any act of separate secession.” That attitude “palsies” any state from “taking the first step.”
But submission to paralysis and to enemies who intend our “degradation and ruin … can only postpone for a few brief years,” and “cannot possibly avert,” our reduction “to an equality with our slaves.” We will never again have “an opportunity so favorable for decisive action.” Townsend would conquer the Separatist shakes, including his own, by rallying “a sufficient number of the Southern States to stand by us.” Perhaps his massively distributed secessionist appeals would create a Separatism worthy of trust—and at least more trustworthy than Southern Republican officeholders.29
Townsend had been born and bred to exemplify the trustworthy patriarch. He entered the world and left it at Bleak Hall, the family’s gorgeous country seat on Edisto Island. A graduate of Princeton, he owned 272 slaves and well over half a million dollars’ worth of land in 1860. His Bleak Hall cotton won prizes for the longest, finest threads of Sea Island fiber. Belgian and French lacemakers coveted his threads.
At Bleak Hall, Townsend demanded not only immaculate cotton but also impeccable gardens. One of North America’s only Chinese gardeners kept the rare plants pristine. Townsend himself bore the look of pruned refinement, crowned with a carefully cultivated heap of profuse hair and featuring reading glasses perched at just the right angle on his nose. Like all Charleston’s rising crop of lowcountry Separatist sophisticates, this Beau Brummell wished a revolution as controlled as Bleak Hall, shorn of Rhett’s crude plunges.30
While Edisto Island’s John Townsend thrived as the cultivated leaders’ best polemist, Charleston’s Robert Gourdin starred as their best organizer. Gourdin had honed organizational skills at his towering capitalistic concern, Gourdin, Mathiesen and Company. The firm specialized in marketing Sea Island cotton, with offices both in Savannah and on Charleston’s East Bay. Robert lived with Henry Gourdin, his brother, mercantile partner, and fellow lifelong bachelor, in a grand mansion around the corner on South Battery Street.31
Although their business and residential palaces edged on the harbor, neither of the brothers Gourdin evoked hints of crude moneymaking or the turbulent sea. They had been nurtured to be country gentlemen on Buck Hall Plantation in St. John’s Parish. Robert, born in 1812, had graduated from South Carolina College the year before nullification and had then briefly practiced law. After deserting the country for the city and the law for merchandizing, he still clung to patriarchal tastes. The Gourdins’ wine cellar harbored the best-chosen vintages in the state. Their garden yielded what Mary Chesnut called “the most glorious bunch of roses I have ever beheld,” sent over upon her arrival in Charleston—“with a note & compliments.”32
Robert Gourdin matched his country friend Townsend not only in manners and roses but also in trimmed personal appearance. The East Bay marketing genius sported a solid head, white hair meticulously swept back, a beautifully shaped full beard, and a full set of glasses, giving aid and comfort to the twinkling eyes. Of all mid-nineteenth-century figures, he best anticipated posterity’s image of Santa Claus.
In 1860, Robert intended that his Christmas season gift to Charleston’s drawing room fanciers would be a revolution that bore no scent of the street. Like Townsend, he aspired to save Separate State Secessionists from wild Rhetts no less than from fanatical Yankees and from the cowardly southern majority. He also meant to improve on Christopher Memminger’s first stab at finding some cooperation beyond South Carolina. After Memminger failed in Virginia, the commissioner had concluded that South Carolina “shall finally be brought to the point of making the issue alone and taking our chances for the other States to join us.”33
But Gourdin had grown rich by avoiding unnecessary chances. The crafty capitalist concluded that Memminger had pitched the correct message to the wrong folk and with the wrong tactics. Lower South patriots, not Upper South compromisers, must be approached. The venture must deploy a sustained barrage of public and private written words, not a single blockbuster oral presentation. The effort must secure enough secret promises of support, if South Carolina acted alone, so that South Carolina gentlemen would and should risk a Separatist destiny.
Charleston’s newly organized 1860 Association carried out the assignment. Gourdin and his compatriots’ initiative commenced in early September, several weeks before Governor Gist wrote the other Lower South governors. Every Thursday night, fifteen or so wealthy gentlemen met, usually at the Gourdins’ house, to decide whether the wine was more fragrant then last week’s offering and to discuss how to secure a safe Separatist revolution. Before October commenced, the Thursday night cavorters had settled on an organization and a strategy.
Their 1860 Association featured Robert Gourdin as the chief operating officer (technically the chairman of the executive committee) and as secret correspondent with southern leaders. Henry Gourdin helped with brother Robert’s clandestine correspondence. Isaac Hayne directed the committee on publication. John Townsend wrote the great pamphlets. William Dennison Porter served as the titular president. Judge Andrew Magrath offered legal advice. William L. Tennent, Jr., twenty-two years old, became secretarytreasurer.34
Young Tennent epitomized the desire, expressed in the 1860 Association’s first appeal, “to shake off that lethargy” and that “slow poison called ‘Love of the Union’ which seems to have stultified” the South’s old leaders. “By placing in the hands of the youthand genius of the South thousands of … incendiary pamphlets, by corresponding with all our leading men South, and … by putting our gallant little state in a posture of defense,” they hoped to produce a viable “resistance of the Cotton States” to “meet the contemplated emergency of Lincoln’s election.”35
The 1860 Association did little to improve gallant South Carolina’s armed defenses, except to summon parade companies. The First Regiment of Rifles, the Washington Artillery, the Zoave Cadets, the Palmetto Guards, and the Charleston Riflemen did march around the streets to celebrate, after the association’s public propaganda and private correspondents created prospects of Cotton South cooperation. The published propaganda, the very essence of non-conspiratorial persuasion, included over 200,000 pamphlets, produced in but sixty days. This little miracle of lightning-fast editing, printing, and distribution showed that the best southern merchants could deploy the capitalist virtues as agilely as a Yankee. Under Robert Gourdin’s direction, the association’s pamphlets flew across the South even faster than John Townsend’s Sea Island cotton sped to Belgian and French manufacturers of lace.
This previously unpublished image (opposite page) of the 1860 Association’s great pamphleteer, John Townsend, has all the qualities of a supreme American early photograph—perfect clarity, original condition, clever props, ingenious staging, and an important message that transcends its arresting subject. Townsend here exudes the essence of the South Carolinians who first propelled an historic revolution: ultra-refined and ultra-wealthy coastal aristocrats who presented themselves before cameras as well as before deferential followers as old-fashioned republicans, leaning on ancient pillars and ancient texts and determined to achieve a nonrevolutionary revolution, without excesses, egalitarians, rabbles, or mobs. Together with such fastidious patriarchs as Robert Gourdin (this page, upper left), the 1860 Association’s skilled organizer, and Andrew Magrath (upper right), the soberly theatrical judge, Townsend ultimately routed the wilder (in appearance as well as tactics) Robert Barnwell Rhett, Sr. (lower right). Courtesy of the South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia (Townsend and Magrath) and the South Carolina Historical Society (Gourdin and Rhett).
Some 165,000 copies of Townsend’s The Doom of Slavery and The South Alone Should Govern the South spread the word that Lincoln’s administration would immediately menace slavery by raising up a Southern Republican Party, with no “overt act” needed. Gourdin personally solicited an equally revealing 1860 Association pamphlet. James D. B. De Bow’s The Interest in Slavery of the Southern Non-slaveholder offered formidable arguments, both economic and racial, for white plebeians to rally behind rich titans. While that proslavery objective had supposedly been clinched thirty years agone, the Robert Gourdins knew that the Solid South was a myth, making Lincoln’s imminent Southern Republican Party of potential interest to Border South nonslaveholders.
The 1860 Association’s officers prayed that their blizzard of pamphlets would draw forth pledges of cooperation with South Carolina Separatists. Meanwhile, Gourdin’s secret correspondence sought assurances that the pamphlets had done their work—that enough Lower South luminaries would now promise to cooperate, once South Carolina Separatists dared secession. This was not the old sort of South Carolina Cooperationism: waiting for everyone else to share the action or someone else to start it. This was an inspired (or if you will, ominous) new sort of Cooperationism: seeking enough clandestine reassurances so that Separatists would dare to act alone.
The Robert Barnwell Rhetts, junior and senior, apparently received quicker answers to their parallel secret inquiries. The Rhetts had come to realize, perhaps because of the Gourdins’ efforts, that the state’s gentry needed other states’ assurances. Rhett still impatiently conceived that South Carolinians should automatically see that Lower South slaveholders automatically would follow any Lower South revolution. But he would give his state’s cowards the comforts that they should not need. We wrote “many of the Leading men of the different Southern States,” Rhett Jr. later reported, asking questions about their “views and advice as to the course South Carolina should pursue.”36
Except for Jefferson Davis’s “discouraging” message, Rhett claimed that the private answers encouraged South Carolina to strike, certain that other states would follow. With the supposedly sufficient clandestine pledges packed in their bags, the Rhetts sped to Columbia for the early November legislative session. Perhaps their secret mail would brace the state’s uneasy establishment to snatch the postelection moment away from Hammond, Orr, and Chesnut, immediately, unanimously, and irrevocably. Then the Rhetts, not such new pretenders as the Gourdins, would become the climactic Founding Fathers of a sublime Southern Confederacy.